Terrence Malick's Poetic Vision of the Outlaw Couple: Badlands

The expository sequence exemplifies everything described above. The sequence begins at around 10 minutes into the film, after Kit and Holly have already met (already, this is different from Bonnie and Clyde, where by ten minutes their crime spree has already begun). Kit has just taken Holly for a ride and asked her if he can see her again. What follows is a mixture of several montages accompanied by the hypnotic score with little or no diegetic sound (“real” sound that isn’t added) and three real-time events where the music partially or completely stops: Kit and Holly playing cards by the river (its placement suggests that it might be a common occurrence); a short dialogue between Kit and Holly under some football rafters; and Kit and Holly next to the river discussing their first love-making experience. Everything is organized and linked together by the narration; the montages sometimes show images that only vaguely correspond with Holly’s remarks, and sometimes it actually shows events that she mentions, but not in real time. These include: Holly throwing out her sick fish, Kit launching a balloon into the air with a basket attached to it that contains a vow of his love and some of their “tokens and things,” and Holly’s father shooting her dog and dropping it in the river. Since the music accompanies these events and we hear no dialogue or diegetic sound, they become more like poetic representations rather than distinct episodes or scenes. It is worth citing all of the narration to show how the sequence functions:

Montage of feed lot/one shot of Holly running towards Kit, all accompanied by music:
Kit went to work in the feed lot while I carried on with my studies. Little by little we fell in love. As I’d never been popular in school and didn’t have a lot of personality, I was surprised that he took such a liking to me, especially when he could’ve had any other girl in town if he’d given it half a try. He said that I was grand though, that he wasn’t interested in me for sex, and that coming from him this was a compliment. He’d never met a fifteen-year-old girl who behaved more like a grown up and wasn’t giggly. He didn’t care what anybody else thought. I looked good to him and whatever I did was okay. And if I didn’t have a lot to say, well that was okay too.

Kit and Holly next to the river by a tree playing cards (real time):

Holly

What a nice place.

Kit

Yeah, the tree makes it nice.

Holly

And the flowers. Let’s not pick ’em. They’re so nice.

Kit

It’s your play.

This scene exemplifies the way Malick undermines Holly’s account of the events and suggests that her version of the story sometimes stands in ironic contrast to the “reality.” In fact, even if we assume that Holly is not only the author of the narration but also the images (that is, she is imagining Kit when she was not there and remembering when they were together), it is all the more ironic because she is incapable of presenting images and moments that correspond well with her romantic narration. The images of Kit working, sometimes violently, with the cattle are incongruous when matched up with Holly explaining to us that “little by little we fell in love.” Her remark that she “didn’t have a lot to say” points to what Hannah Patterson has suggested might be part of the nature of their attraction to each other (32): Kit might not actually say much of great interest, but he does believe that he has things on his mind to say, and Holly is someone who will listen to him passively. As Henderson notes, she is his audience as he fashions various new identities for himself (39). When the segment transitions to real-time and the music cuts out, the irony is underscored. We expect that, although they do not have much to say to each other, Kit and Holly might have some special unspoken communication; or that, at least, when they do speak it is meaningful. Instead, Holly makes banal remarks, and Kit is hardly interested. This real time episode transitions to the following:

Montage of Holly’s dad, Kit in his car, Kit & Holly under football rafters, accompanied by music:
Of course I had to keep all this a secret from my dad. He would’ve had a fit since Kit was ten years older than me and came from the wrong side of the tracks so called. Our time with each other was limited and each lived for the precious hours when he or she could be with the other, away from all the cares of the world.

Music cuts out, real time dialogue between Kit & Holly under the rafters embracing and kissing:

Holly

(stops kissing Kit) My stomach’s growlin’.

Kit

(looking off) There’s an old fudgesicle, want a lick?

Holly

No.

Kit

Somebody else is gonna get it.

Holly

I don’t care (laughing).

Kit

Kids eat that kind of stuff in Korea.

As with the first segment, the real-time scene is at odds with the narration. This moment under the rafters is precious? Holly interrupts romance to complain about her stomach. Kit doesn’t respond to her complaint and points out a fudgesicle. Although they seem to share a moment when she laughs and he embraces her, there is a disconnect between Holly’s reflection and the “reality” presented in the images. In the following montage, again partly composed of Kit in the feed lot, Holly makes an especially amusing remark: “In the stench and slime of the feed lot, he’d remember how I’d looked the night before.” This comment is followed by images, accompanied by music, of Holly throwing out her old fish, talking about it with Kit (only snatches of dialogue can be heard), Kit at the feed lot stepping on a dead cow, and Kit lying in bed (a close observer will notice that there is a fish sitting on his nightstand to the left of his bed):

The whole time the only thing I did wrong was throwing out my fish when he got sick. Later I got a new one but this incident kept bothering me and I turned to Kit. I didn’t mind telling Kit about stuff like this, cause strange stuff happened in his life too, and some of the stuff he does was strange. For instance, he faked his signature whenever he used it, to keep other people from forging important papers with his name. And as he lay in bed, in the middle of the night, he always heard a noise like somebody was holding a sea-shell against his ear. And sometimes he see me coming towards him in beautiful white robes, and I’d put my cold hand on his forehead.

Holly’s throwing out of her sick fish is one of several events in the film that simply do not make sense or go unexplained (admittedly, nothing is really explained). Other examples are Kit shooting a football he considered “excess baggage” or Kit, when he answers the door of the rich man’s house, taking the note for the rich man from the visitor (played by Malick) but throwing the note in a vase. These events are to a certain extent unreadable, but I would speculate that in the case of the fish it has to do with Holly’s rather blank identity. Many have read the film as at least in part Kit and Holly’s search for an identity (see, for example, Brian Henderson in “Exploring Badlands” and Hannah Patterson in “Two Characters in Search of a Direction: Motivation and the Construction of Identity in Badlands” from The Cinema of Terrence Malick: Poetic Visions of America). The fish might bother Holly because in her empty existence throwing out a pet fish, even if it is sick, could be fairly significant. Kit is just as lacking in identity, but he is different in that he more actively seeks out new avenues: for example, it is Kit who kills Holly’s father and begins their journey. Holly’s remark about Kit always forging his signature could not be more telling. Just as he has no real signatures, only forgeries, he has no real identity, only those he temporarily takes on. As expected by this point, the real-time scene that follows this narration is ironically underwhelming: after Holly describes the romantic dreams Kit has of her, we see the two in the same place as before, by the tree next to the river, after having made love for the first time; neither of them is especially excited about it. This episode is the last of the real time segments in the sequence, and the montage builds up to Holly’s dad killing her dog, which is followed by Kit confronting her father as he paints a sign. The overall effect of the sequence is to poetically condense time and highlight key events and images which often work incongruously with the narration, suggesting that Kit and Holly’s relationship is highly unusual and not as Holly describes it.

The end of this long strand of narration marks the end of the film’s exposition; there is a dialogue between Kit and Holly’s father, and after that Kit goes to pick up Holly to take her away and ends up killing her father when he threatens to call the police. Kit enters the house and begins packing Holly’s things. In a medium-shot of Kit as he moves off screen to the left, we see Holly’s father’s image in the mirror as he reaches the top of the stairs. It is a complex shot, as it is not only a mirror image, but he is framed by a doorway and sun coming through a window behind him lights him from the back. This reverses to another medium-shot of Kit as he walks towards the same doorway that frames Holly’s father. “Hi,” Kit says. “What are you doing?” Holly’s father asks. The camera follows Kit as he approaches and takes out the gun from his back pocket, saying, without any particular menace or anger, “I got a gun here, sir.” There is a reverse to a medium-shot facing Kit; he is framed by the doorway. “It’s always a good idea to have one around,” Kit remarks, almost bashfully. It is unclear whether or not he is being earnest – that is, is he actually just making conversation, and remarking that it is good to have gun around, or does he mean to be threatening? In either case, Kit does not seem especially passionate or moved by the situation. In a reverse shot of Holly’s father at the head of the stairs and Holly right behind him, the father repeats the question, “What do you think you’re doing?” this time incredulous; he finds it difficult to believe that Kit would actually come with a gun. There is a certain absurdity to the situation, in Kit making polite, but perhaps vaguely threatening conversation. In the reverse shot of Kit again framed in the doorway, he just sighs, as if he is not quite sure what to do next. Along with Holly’s father, we are aware of how unprepared Kit is and how unaware he is of the gravity of what he is doing. We, like Holly’s father, do not know what to make of the situation. For the most part, both of these characters remain calm throughout the scene. Holly’s father, for his part, does not seem to believe that Kit will actually do anything. The only point where either of them shows any sign of emotion is when Holly’s father starts to walk down the stairs to call the police and Kit calls out, “Hey, wait a minute!” and there is a cut to a medium-shot of him looking excited. After Kit actually shoots and kills Holly’s father, the atmosphere is subdued. On the whole it is a rather passionless scene (not unlike the love-making scene), though it is rather shocking for us as audiences. We can only speculate as to what Kit’s intentions actually were. He tells Holly’s father “I got it all planned, and uh, I’m taking Holly off with me,” with little conviction. And when he glibly asks, “Suppose I shot you, how’d that be?” it is as if the idea just occurred to him that that might be something he can do.

Two things are clear about this murder and the murders that follow: l’amour fou is not exactly an obvious motivation, as the montage situated just before this sequence suggests – Holly might claim that they are in love, but the events show a rather passionless affair. After all, Holly is not complicit in any of the murders, especially her father’s. In addition, this murder and the others are not linked to any social cause – Holly’s father does not represent society’s oppression, as the banks and the police do in Bonnie and Clyde. They might just be a way to escape boredom and “lash out against the difficulty of making sense of things,” as Ron Mottram suggests in his essay on Malick (18). I would add that their crime spree is almost an arbitrarily chosen route among other possible routes; Kit could have been a police officer like the one who captures him, for example, and had just as much fun. There is never the sense in the film that Kit and Holly’s adventures are overdetermined by the conventions of the genre. And, in fact, when Holly for example tries to narrate the story as one that is clichéd and conventional, we find that there is a considerable dissonance between her account and what we actually see on the screen.

The montage sequence that follows the murder of Holly’s father is one of the most beautiful in the film. It is introduced by Kit making a recording on a Dictaphone to leave in front of the house, which he plans to burn down:

Uh, my girl Holly and I decided to kill ourselves, same way I did her dad. Big decision, huh? Uh, the reasons are obvious, uh, I don’t have time to go into them right now. But uh, one thing though: he was provoking me when I popped him. Uh, that’s what is was like: pop. But we’re sorry. I mean, uh, nobody’s comin’ out of this thing happy, especially not us. I can’t deny we’ve had fun though. And, uh, that’s more than I can say for some. That’s the end of the message. I ran out of things to say. Thank you.

This message, delivered glibly as most of Kit’s lines are delivered, underscores his total lack of passion and understanding of the gravity of his actions. This moment is a rare instance when we hear Kit’s account of the events of the film, and just as with Holly’s narration, it is unsuited to the reality. But instead of being unrealistically romantic and clichéd, it is underwhelming and completely devoid of emotion. And, of course, the reasons are anything but obvious. When he says, “Big decision, huh?” it is ironic because, as big an event it is for us, it does not appear to be particularly significant to Kit. His remark, “nobody’s comin’ out of this happy, especially not us,” is highly amusing because it is obvious that they are not coming out of it happy – there is no one else involved, other than the father. Finally, when he says, “I can’t deny we’ve had fun though. And, uh, that’s more than I can say for some,” he gives us the closest possible thing to an explanation for his actions: he murdered Holly’s father, and will continue to murder, for lack of anything better to do. Perhaps we can speculate that Kit is a psychopath. A montage accompanied by string music with vocals of Holly’s house burning down occurs shortly after this sequence. Images of different items burning appear: Holly’s father, a piano, a piece of fruit, Holly’s bedroom, etc. The intensity of these images, especially with the music, seems to be a way of accounting for the deadly serious nature of Kit and Holly’s actions in the face of their indifference; it is Malick, interjecting his version of the tale that both admires the beauty of the flames destroying Holly’s normal, middle class life, and also mourns the loss at the same time.

The fire montage blends into more of Holly’s narration over images of her getting her things from school and joining Kit in his car:

Kit made me get my books from school so I wouldn’t fall behind. We’d be starting a new life, he said, and we’d have to change our names. His would be James, mine would be Priscilla. We’d hide out like spies somewhere in the north where people didn’t ask a lot of questions. I coulda snuck out the back or hid in the boiler room, I suppose, but I sensed that my destiny now lay with Kit, for better or for worse, and that it was better to spend a week with one who loved me for what I was than years of loneliness.

This narration exemplifies Holly’s tendency to use romantic clichés (“one who loved more for what I was…”). It also points to how they try to construct new identities for themselves, but ironically these identities never seem to work, as they do not head north, or even call each other by fake names. Or, when they do, it seems completely pointless and amusing, as when, much later in film, Kit says to Holly about the Cadillac he’s been driving, “What’s the blue book value on this, Mildred?” in order to try to get the man they find to trade them his truck. Not only has he never called her Mildred before, but she has no idea what he is talking about and does not respond. Then Kit introduces himself with his real name and identity, anyway; “Name’s Kruthers. Believe I shoot people now and then.” Kit and Holly cannot escape Kit’s decision to kill her father and flee – or, perhaps more appropriately, they do not try very hard to escape it. It does not have to do with the inevitability of conventions determining them (if that were the case, they would romantically die together in a shoot out à la Bonnie and Clyde); it has to do with their inability to play any other part than the part they arbitrarily chose early on. When Holly tells us that Kit wanted her to get her books to keep up with her studies, it emphasizes Kit’s true, conservative nature. He is not the rebel or outsider from Rebel Without a Cause, nor is he Michel of Breathless, Ferdinand of Pierroet le fou, or Clyde from >Bonnie and Clyde – all characters that are outsiders and cannot function in normal society. Neil Campbell has suggested that Kit, more than anything, actually wants the recognition of society (45), which in a way he gets at the end of the film when he endears himself to the police officers who send him off to prison to be executed.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/jonobroadbent Jonathan Broadbent

    Lovely, thank you. In my opinion every Malick film is an inimitable masterpiece – always different and always the same.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1363230138 Michael Koh

    Jean-Paul Belmondo makes some funny faces in Breathless

  • Jules Winnfield

    A bit contrived, no? But I think you've won over the academy just yet.

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